Former Washington Commanders employees and members of Congress pressured the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday to release a report about the team’s history of sexual harassment and its sexist, hostile workplace culture. They said the team and owner Dan Snyder have not been held accountable for their misdeeds.
One of the six former employees who spoke before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform also came forward with a new allegation that she was sexually harassed by Snyder himself, which Snyder denied.
Complaints about the team's treatment of female employees first surfaced in 2020. Snyder commissioned an investigation into the team's workplace environment that was taken over by the NFL. The probe by attorney Beth Wilkinson's firm led the league to fine Washington $10 million, and Snyder temporarily ceded day-to-day operations of the team to his wife, Tanya.
But the league did not release any details of the Wilkinson investigation's findings, and former employees who spoke Thursday noted the contrast to the way the NFL handled an investigation into allegations that quarterback Tom Brady deflated footballs.
“When the investigation of the air pressure of Tom Brady's football concludes with a 200-plus-page report, but the investigation into two decades of sexual harassment concludes with nothing, it shows the NFL's complete lack of respect towards women, their employees and for the culture of our country,” said Emily Applegate, who worked in the team's marketing department and said she was sexually harassed daily by her direct superior.
In 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and widespread protests about systemic racism, the team dropped its longtime name “Redskins” amid pressure from sponsors to get rid of a moniker that was criticized for decades for being offensive to Native Americans. The franchise was known as the Washington Football Team until Wednesday, when Snyder announced its new name, the Commanders.
“Just yesterday, Mr. Snyder tried to rebrand his team as the Commanders. With due respect, it's going to take more than a name change to fix that broken culture,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the committee chairwoman.
Tiffani Johnston, who worked for the team for eight years starting in 2002 as a cheerleader and marketing manager, told the committee on Thursday that Snyder placed his hand on her thigh without her consent at a team dinner, and that he pushed her toward his limousine with his hand on her lower back. She had not previously disclosed those allegations to the media or investigators.
“He left his hand on the middle of my thigh until I physically removed it,” Johnston said.
Describing the incident outside Snyder's limousine, she said: “The only reason Dan Snyder removed his hand from my back and stopped pushing me towards his limo was because his attorney intervened and said, ‘Dan, Dan, this is a bad idea.’ ... I learned that I should remove myself from Dan's grip while his attorney was distracting him.”
Maloney read from a letter by another former team employee, Jason Friedman, corroborating Johnston's account. In a statement released by the Commanders, Snyder denied Johnston's allegations.
“While past conduct at the team was unacceptable, the allegations leveled against me personally in today’s roundtable — many of which are well over 13 years old — are outright lies,” Snyder said. “I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person.”
In a statement, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said: “The NFL is reviewing and will consider Ms. Johnston's allegations as we would any other new allegations regarding workplace misconduct at the Washington Commanders. We will determine any further action as appropriate.”
Among the allegations repeated at Thursday’s roundtable discussion: that women working for the team were repeatedly subjected to unwanted touching and crude comments; that cheerleaders were ogled by team executives and clients and fired by Snyder because of their looks; and that the team’s video production department, at Snyder’s behest, secretly edited an explicit video of cheerleaders using surreptitious footage from a calendar shoot.
It was unclear whether pressure from Congress would prompt Goodell, who has cited former employees' privacy for not releasing the report of the investigation, to change his mind or take further action against Snyder or the team. McCarthy's statement did not address the possibility of releasing the report, but he said the former employees “demonstrated courage by sharing their painful experiences.”
Congressional Republicans said it was outside the scope of the committee to push a legislative solution to the team's treatment of employees and said the roundtable was a distraction from more urgent issues.
“The witnesses here have begged for us to do something, and nothing is going to happen as a result of this committee,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. “That's cruel to these people.”
Lisa Banks, an attorney representing the former employees who spoke Thursday and more than 30 others, said she expects Congress to continue pursuing an end to what she called a “cover-up” by the NFL. She also criticized Republicans for what she described as “a willingness only to stand with Dan Snyder.”
Asked about the scrutiny from Congress by philanthropist David Rubenstein during an appearance at the Economic Club of Washington, Commanders President Jason Wright said the team’s workplace problems occurred before his arrival. Wright is the only Black team president in the NFL and highlighted the diversity of the staff he has built.
“The period of this rebrand and the time we’ve been here has coincided with a period of very fast, very deep and irreversible change within the organization,” Wright said.
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